With numerous awards and accolades under her belt, including the recent honor of being named Top Appellate Lawyer by Boston Magazine, Mala Rafik is no stranger to being recognized for her efforts — particularly when it comes to advocating for her chronically ill and disabled clients. These days, however, the Managing Partner at Boston’s Rosenfeld & Rafik, P.C. is also being acknowledged for her proactive approach to integrating cielo’s technology into her firm’s workspace, a step that has streamlined workflow and allowed for a more effective work-life balance amongst her employees.
It’s true that Mala has a longstanding affinity for technology. But while the self-described “technology nut” has always taken a keen interest in the inner workings of how technology and telecommunications work hand-in-hand with her legal work, she now sees it as an integral component of running her firm. Rather than looking through the lens that technology makes the productivity more challenging and complicated, she’s clearing the cobwebs. And though the onset of the pandemic has certainly illicited its share of challenges, Mala admits that refined technology might just be the best thing to come out of it — especially now that cielo is giving her back some much-needed personal time.
I grew up in Dubai when it was “pre-Dubai.” It was just desert and water, rather than the Las Vegas of the Middle East. My mom was Catholic from India, and my dad was Muslim from Pakistan, and they are obviously from completely different and conflicting backgrounds. They met in Dubai in the 60s.
Neither one of my parents went to college. They ingrained in us the need to give back. It was part of everything they did — to help us realize and never forget just how lucky we were, and to always give back in any way we could. They lived that way, and they made it a part of us. So, from the time I was little, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer. Now, both my brother and I are lawyers; he's a criminal defense lawyer and was a public defender, and I represent people who are chronically ill and disabled.
When I was in fourth grade, we had to write “How do you see yourself when you're grown up?” Mine said I could see myself being a lawyer because I wanted to help people. I know I was in fourth grade, but those are my mom's words! It's such a reflection of my family. My mom was an immigrant here; she was a Green Card holder. The happiest and most important day of her life was when she became an American citizen. I'm an immigrant here, too, so this is very much what I was always meant to do. And it’s because of them. In many ways, we didn't have a choice because that's how we were raised.
My mom passed away in the summer of 2020. On my bad days, when things are hard, I think about how she was the strongest person I've ever met. She was in her mid-20s when she left to go to the Middle East from India. She left her entire family behind (she had 10 brothers and sisters) because they needed money. Both my parents left their families and moved to Dubai before it was even really a country because they heard that you could make money there. Then they sent back their paychecks to support their families. She was a woman in a Muslim country, not knowing one other person, and she built something. When she moved to the U.S. during the Gulf War, she built her own company, and she was so strong against every single odd. If she was scared, she never showed it. She inspired me, and every time I mentor others, I think of that.
I always wanted to be a human rights lawyer. The year after I graduated from law school, I was working part-time at the ACLU of Massachusetts. A close friend was throwing a party at her house, and at the end of the night, she said, “You should meet my dad. He’s a lawyer.” We met and totally hit it off, and I ended up working with him. During my interview, we talked a lot about how health care is, at least in our view, the most essential human right. It should be an entitlement.
He started his health care law firm the year before I got there, and we started doing health care access work. I was lucky enough to join Steve Rosenthal’s firm, and then I became a partner a few years later. We represent people who are chronically ill, disabled, or both, in accessing health care and private disability benefits. For many of our clients, the disability benefits are their financial security. Economic rights are as important to me as civil rights and health care. You can't have any other right without your health! So, I feel like I'm doing what I always wanted to do, just on a different path.
Technology has been everything since the pandemic. I’ve become a little bit of a technology nut — I listen to a lot of legal tech podcasts.
We have eight women here, ranging in age from 26 to around 60, and a bunch of us are mothers. We needed to figure out a way for them to work from home. I thought we were pretty technologically advanced, but we really weren’t! What we needed was a system that would allow us to work from anywhere. When you're waiting in the parking lot while your kids are at an appointment, it might be the one five-minute period you have to make phone calls. But using your cell phone and giving a client or insurance company your cell phone number doesn’t always seem like the best way to go. We looked into our options, and cielo changed our entire practice. The combination of that and going online for our case management software was everything.
I think technology is the best thing to come out of the pandemic, quite frankly. (And the fact that we don't need to be in an office to do the work.) The impact it makes on the lives of women and mothers, in particular, is profound. What I realized, working with all women, is that women are great at adapting.
We have a fluid workplace now, and work when we can — it doesn't matter how many hours we put in, as long as we’re getting the work done. Some people might work from eight to 10 at night; some people like to work in the morning. But what cielo has allowed us to do is have more of a life even though we're much more shut down [due to the pandemic]. My associate calls it “stolen moments.” She has moments with her kids she wouldn't otherwise have because she's not in Boston in an office. They can walk down the street and get ice cream. That’s the miracle of technology! Before COVID, we were going along without thinking about how else we could do things. We were working from home a little bit, but we were primarily in the office because that’s what we thought we had to do. We weren't thinking outside of the box. Now, we are. It has been much better for business. It’s much more efficient, and people are happier.
“Before COVID, we were going along without thinking about how else we could do things. We were working from home a little bit, but we were primarily in the office because that’s what we thought we had to do. We weren't thinking outside of the box.”
Primarily, there are two features that we use. The first is our case management system, Clio, which is a cloud-based legal practice software. We switched to that in November 2020, because people were dialing into their computers here at the office, and it was clunky and inefficient. If the office internet went down, they couldn't dial in, so they couldn't get work done. Clio is completely cloud-based and integrates seamlessly with Microsoft.
The second feature is cielo. Emails are the bane of my existence, and this phone system has changed my life. I rarely use the actual phone! We bought phones because that's “what you do.” Everyone needs a desk phone, right? But I can't remember the last time I used my desk phone; I use the online service when I'm sitting at my desk instead. I dial through my computer, and it either plays through my speakers if I'm on speakerphone or through my Bluetooth headset. I just click on the phone number, and it dials for me. It’s time-saving! But I think the greatest part of the whole system is the app. I can't stop thinking or talking about the app.
A couple of years ago, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts appointed a standing committee on lawyer wellbeing, and I was appointed to that committee. Part of what we pivoted on during the pandemic was how we can make lawyers' lives better and what role tech plays in that. We encourage firms to find ways to make the people they work with happier. Working from home, or having a hybrid workspace, is one of the elements that make people the happiest. So, I speak a lot about this system — in great part because of the app. It’s so user-friendly. And it's such a simple thing, but when you're dialing in, it looks like you’re calling from the office. That’s a huge thing for us as a law firm! Not having to give out our private cell phone numbers means we can still maintain the boundary between our personal and work lives. One time, I remember waiting to get my COVID vaccine and picking up the phone because I had to call the opposing counsel. I suddenly remembered the app, and that’s when everything came to light.
Definitely! I still take notes on paper and it drives everyone crazy. My handwritten notes don’t do anyone any good. That has been one of the greatest parts of this system; I can have deep, long, substantive conversations with clients, record them, and then transcribe them and stick them right in the client file. I’ve been the worst about switching from paper to typing, so that saves so much time.
cielo is so easy to use that there was no learning curve to speak of. If you can use an iPhone, you can use the app! There was a bit of a learning curve with the case management software and all of the stuff that integrated with Clio and Microsoft, but I sort of forced it on people. For the most part, I work with younger people, so they were totally happy with it. I think you have to lose the mindset of “We are bound to paper.”
The thing about the pandemic is it forced us into that spot, but the world has adapted as well. You can Google anything or watch a YouTube video on how to do it. We did a lot of training around it and sent videos around, and people (some begrudgingly) came around. Some people are always going to have the attitude of “It’s working fine. We’ve done it this way for 20 years; why do we have to change anything?”
The app, because it’s so easy to use! It makes for a fluid workspace; it makes the hybrid work world so accessible. People underestimate [its worth]. I talk to lawyers about it all the time and tell them they should invest in it. They often say, “I have a cell phone, so I don’t need it.” My response to that is, “You will never have that work-life balance if you give out your cell phone number.” People will abuse it. They will text you at all hours. As lawyers, the problem is that we don’t know when to say “no,” or not answer the phone. So, to be able to use a personal cell phone and only have people see the work number pop up is so important in trying to achieve balance in this profession. With a work phone, you’re tied to your desk. With a cell phone, it’s hard to maintain division and privacy.
There are so many little things about the program that make it easier for us to communicate about clients. Even if we try to get clients to use our online portal, people really just want to talk. So, one of the greatest things is having calls and emails sync. cielo transcribes the voicemail message and then attaches it as a file. I can email, deal with it immediately, and even forward it to someone else in the firm to handle. Plus, we then have a record of that phone call. There have been so many times in court where there has been confusion or a dispute as to what was said. Now we'll never have that problem again because we can save the voicemail into our client file. In the everyday delegation of work, the ability to forward something via email and say, “Can you handle this for me?” is huge.
“I get 100 more stolen moments because this program has allowed me to take back some of my time. That is invaluable … Technology has changed our lives to give us back our lives.”
I keep going back to my associate’s words about “stolen moments” with our families. It’s even more than a “time is money” issue. I get 100 more stolen moments because this program has allowed me to take back some of my time. That is invaluable.
I care so much about the life-work balance. One of the negatives about COVID and working from home is that we’re always working; there isn’t a line of delineation between the workday and home life. For me, coming to work is important because I like that delineation. Some people don't have that option, and some people love to work at home. But the faster you can do things, the more time you have to spend with your family, exercise, do things with friends, and take care of yourself. So, as we're coming out of this pandemic, having those additional two hours because of technology that you may not have had before is crucial. Technology has changed our lives to give us back our lives. I think that too many people see technology as just one more burden. It’s a learning curve for some of the older people with whom I work. For the younger people, this is how they grew up. I happen to like tech, so it's something I spent a lot of time learning. But I don't think people focus enough on how much it has given us back in terms of our lives because they don't add up the time. The coolest thing is that it can be during what we traditionally thought of as “the workday.” It used to be that we worked nine to five, then went home and shut down. It doesn't have to be that way.
One of our employees has a very sick mom who lives in another state. The employee was able to spend all of January with her, work from there, and spend a lot of time with her mom that she wouldn't have had otherwise. That’s because of technology and this phone system, and because our case management system is on the cloud. It’s a gift.